David Hirshberg won second prize in the national story competition in the 2020 Hackney Literary Awards for The Holyman of Vietnam
1956, Arroyo Grande, New Mexico
After dinner on Friday nights, my father would tell stories to me, my older sister Débora and my younger sister Nohemi. We’d sit, legs crossed, with our backs to the great fire, listening to him raise and lower his voice, watching him standing, walking around the room, hearing the wood crackling, seeing ashes floating in space, noticing shadows flickering in an otherwise darkened room. When the stories got too scary, Nohemi would crawl inside her blanket, roll to where she was touching my legs, and peek out, turtle-like, only when there was a pause for a transition from one scene to another.
The stories would all start out the same way: a group of three children, one boy and two girls, all related, would sneak out of their house at night, go into the woods and dig up dirt, clay, and loam, and fashion the materials into a person twice the size of a normal man. The giant creature would spring to life as they poured hot coals over it, then the children would throw water to cool the figure, and watch it form hair, eyes, fingernails, and toes. The children would stick twigs into the head and then blow air into the space when they pulled the twigs out, giving life to the creature—or Holyman—as my father called it. Then the children would reveal to the Holyman the terrible situation that they were in, and how the Holyman should seek revenge on those who’d harmed them. The stories always took place on a cold windy night filled with danger in the fields, woods, and alleys. The children would be pursued by pirates and wizards, then would be assaulted with words, and attacked with weapons. They’d be forced to admit crimes that they hadn’t committed, sins they weren’t guilty of, and made to believe that they’d never see their parents again or witness the sun to rise that very day.
Then–the Holyman to the rescue!
The creature who couldn’t talk, but who could see and hear, would materialize from the shadows and instantly spring into action, absorb taunts and insults, fend off musket balls, knives, and lances, retrieve those strapped to the rack, tied to the stake, shackled by chains attached to horses, or hoist up those who had their heads forced under water, in which case he’d breathe life back into the child, knowing that the very air that he blew would empty his own lungs, and cause his own death. In the end, he’d always die, without a sigh or trace of any emotion, and simply melt back into the earth to be recalled again, on another Friday night. Then we’d go to bed, to dream of the Holyman who’d always be there for us when we’d need him most.”
Each Sunday during the eight weeks of basic training at Fort Ord, I’d call Miriam, and by the third week when I told her how much I missed her, she responded with, ‘I love you, too’. In the last week, I was selected to train to be a combat medic. This required me to spend 16 more weeks at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. In December, I received my orders that indicated I was going to Vietnam. Mir arranged to fly to Sacramento, then took the bus to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, where she met me for the one day I had before getting on a C141 to fly to Honolulu, refueling in Guam, then on to Danang.
We kidded about eloping or me going AWOL, which, in retrospect, was our way of shedding nervous energy. The unspoken was that I might never return. At the end of 1965, there were more than 180,000 soldiers in Vietnam with almost 2,000 having been killed in action. It
was something we didn’t talk about directly. We referred to it as ‘the odds,’ and by keeping it as a percentage, any discussions with Mir or my buddies could be characterized as conceptual, something we do when we don’t want to confront the inevitable head on. I was a member of the 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 5th Battalion, 503rd Infantry of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Hank was the other medic in the platoon, and we were paired up for nine months before he was sent to another unit. Every night, we wrote down on a slip of paper what each of us thought were the odds of us making it back home, which was heavily influenced by the events of the day. I’ve kept that one piece of paper with 270 numbers in order, folded over four times, where it’s tucked into my wallet. After I got back to the States, every time I heard about the death of one of the members of my Company, whether in combat, from in-theater contracted disease or by suicide, I took the sheet of paper out, said a prayer and tried to recollect something—a conversation, an act, a facial expression, a pose—anything to remember the fallen comrade.
Hank and I would follow behind the tanks and armored personnel carriers over rough terrain and scramble out of our unprotected Jeep when we got the radio signal to enter the combat zone, to minister to the wounded who needed our attention. We’d been issued handguns, but both of us couldn’t imagine a set of circumstances in which we’d ever have to use them. We wore our gear at all times so that when we got the message, we were completely prepared to get into action as quickly as possible. Seconds lost could be the difference between life and death. For the most part, as we raced to where an NCO was pointing, we’d see a body on the ground, surrounded by soldiers, some cradling a head, some applying compression to a wound, others using a knife to cut off a piece of clothing or a boot. They were always screaming at us to go faster. Our job was to do whatever we could, such that when a GI was evacuated to a base to be worked over by a team of physicians, he’d have the best chance of survival and recovery.
For all except for the most superficial of wounds, we had to apply compression to stem the loss of blood and to clean them as best we could—no easy job, given the debris in the air from dirt, foliage and fumes that flew all around us from bullets, tracks, tires, exhausts, and discharges. We’d apply an antiseptic to an arm and hook up an IV with glucose or saline, making sure that one of the soldiers was holding the bag up. If the wounded man were conscious, we’d give him a pain pill to swallow or chew. When the wound was gruesome, as in the case where an arm or a leg had been blown off by a mortar or land mine, we had to apply a tourniquet quickly and efficiently. Many times, our jobs were made more difficult because of a patient so far gone that he couldn’t cooperate to tell us what hurt most, and frequently we had to deal with interference from soldiers who weren’t wounded getting in our way. The most difficult part of our jobs was the declaration or call, a decision that could cause intense anger among the fallen soldier’s comrades that would make it almost impossible for them to place the deceased soldier in a body bag. This could prevent us from moving on to the next downed GI, where we’d be screamed at by his comrades for us to deal with the living and forget about the dead. More than once, we witnessed a confrontation between a group unable to cope with a death and another desperately trying to prevent it.
Death was all around us in the combat zone, the helicopter rides back to the base, the hospitals, the field barracks, the places where we’d meet with the chaplains, and in the letters or telegrams that were sent to the families of the fallen. It wasn’t just American or allied forces’ deaths. We were witnesses to it each time we entered a village, seeing the burned-out huts, observing the freshly dug graves, receiving the hard stares from those who’d never heard of
Vietnamization or cared about ideology or were cognizant of the domino theory. We were the agents of death. It was that simple.
In our hearts, we were the good guys, the ones who’d hop off the Jeep to give some medical care to a bleeding kid, but it became clear to us after just a short period of time that some bandages and antiseptic lotions were no salve to a village that’d go on in its ancient ways regardless of whether it was under the influence of the North Vietnamese, the VC, or the Americans. ‘Holding the line against the reds’ was an abstraction created by politicians 9,000 miles away, and within a few weeks of our being in-country, it had no meaning to most of us as well.
I was one of the few who had some college. Most of the grunts were fresh out of high school, and had fathers who fought in World War II. At both Fort Ord and Fort Sam Houston, they were generally gung-ho, supportive of the war effort and eager to get to Vietnam. One would notice a change relatively quickly, brought on as much by the oppressive heat and humidity, the torrential rains, the insect swarms, and the diseases that affected a large percentage of the troops. Malaria, dysentery, black syphilis (better known as Saigon Rose), and hepatitis C were the main culprits, although we treated many GIs for head lice, crabs and athlete’s foot. We had to beg to get more tetanus shots when we first got there.
Once we were in the jungle, we were confronted with soldiers who had trouble breathing from the intake of napalm, white phosphorus from tracers and smoke grenades, and unaccustomed odors from stagnant water and dead animals. Our own bodies reeked of not having bathed, and we spent inordinate amounts of time burning leeches off the men with cigarettes, warning them not to pull them off as this would strip their skin and likely lead to an infection. While omnipresent snakes initially caused undue panic, in a way, looking down at
each step turned out to be to our advantage, as it allowed us to avoid many booby traps. In general, we could deal with the crude made-in-jungle constructions, but what caused dread and great trauma were the pressure traps, sophisticated devices that would blow only when your foot stepped off of one. Trying to save a life in the jungle from a soldier who’d been blown up by one of these traps was almost impossible. And, given our credo of not leaving anyone behind, Hank and I had, on more than one occasion, carried a soldier back over long distances through bogs, where heavy growth required us to use machetes, all the while avoiding rats that seemed to trail us with great efficiency and wary, always, of tigers, which, fortunately, we never came across.
Disillusion set in on most of us within a few weeks of being away from the base. It affected the gung-ho guys the worst, the fall from the height of supreme confidence in the U.S. mission into the abyss of despair was swift and calamitous. The most obvious manifestations of this behavior were pot smoking, excessive drinking, sex with local women who may or may not have been agents of the VC, the indiscriminate use of firearms without provocation, and the hostility towards the commissioned officers, who seemed to understand that decorations were the key to advancement, so they pushed the grunts into missions that may not’ve been for any utility other than to collect ribbons.
My only knowledge of the war had been garnered through observations of student protesters at school, who’d wave American flags with the hammer and cycle placed over the stars or who’d sew a peace symbol or the numbers 666 over the stars. Those who didn’t carry
flags would greet others by holding their index and middle finger up to form a V, with the thumb holding down the other two fingers, a kind of non-military salute that, if reciprocated, was a sign of agreement against having American troops in Vietnam and war in general. I admired their passion, but my view of the ‘make peace, not war’ position was heavily influenced by my
European-born rowing partner’s illustrations of the naïveté of this outlook by pointing out circumstances—such as World War II—in which there was no alternative to war. Hank and I were there to perform a highly critical job and we’d do everything possible to carry it out without compromise. We were, of course, aghast at the arbitrary shooting of civilians and the blanketing of fields with napalm, but felt that if the U.S. could push the NVA invaders back to the north,
that the VC guerilla war would fizzle and that the country could return to some semblance of normalcy, which would allow us to be able to go home.
Hank was an ethnic Catholic from Chicago who’d been drafted right after his high school graduation. Although he was only a couple of inches shorter than I at six feet, two inches, he was universally described as big, while people characterized me as tall, the difference being that he weighed close to seventy pounds more than I did, having the physique of a heavyweight wrestler as opposed to my shape as a member of the crew team. We kidded each other that he would’ve sunk a shell, and I would’ve been pinned to a mat in seconds. He had massive shoulders and
legs. His uniform had been altered by a Vietnamese woman who lived near the base. We could get almost anything we wanted from her for U.S. currency at half the price we could buy it from the PX, where, we were sure, things had been stolen from in the first place. We spent two week’s pay for boots that this woman made that left the imprint of sandals typically worn by the VCs walking in the opposite direction.
It was this same woman who taught me some Vietnamese, including one word which I never thought I’d use.
When Hank was first introduced to me by our platoon leader, he assumed that I was Mexican, not surprising given my surname of Toledano. He extended his huge hand to shake and greeted me with a friendly “¿Hola como estas?” which, it turned out, was practically the
complete range of his knowledge of Spanish, which I quickly discerned when I responded by launching into a full conversation that was reciprocated by a blank stare and hands held out in front as if to say, stop! He laughed uproariously at his own jokes, and instinctively would give me a slap on the back or a jab to my triceps, his playful way of making a connection that took some getting used to.
On July 4, 1966, our platoon had orders to get to a village south of Pleiku, which was at the apex of a triangle mid-way between Danang and Cam Ranh Bay. We were airlifted in Huey choppers to a site on the east side of a river over which the engineers had just finished constructing a 30-foot long log bridge. Gingerly, we crossed over, stepping on the innermost two logs and keeping our heads down. Ahead on a rise, we could see the village, at the top of what looked like manicured rows of farmland, encircling the huts like rings. Up we went, splayed out over a hundred yards, cautiously climbing while constantly looking from side to side. Hank and I even had our Colt .45s out. We were to interrogate the villagers to find out if any VC were in the area and then to take a position on a ridge that overlooked the town to the east and a river to the west. There were only old men, young children, women, and animals in the village and our interpreter told us that while some VC apparently came at night, the place was too remote and insignificant for them to stage an attack from there. We dug in to spend the night. The ground
was soft, so we could dig our foxholes relatively quickly and found plenty of fronds and other foliage to lie down on. Lookouts climbed nearby trees and rotated every two hours. No one had night vision goggles so we listened for sounds of multiple voices, mechanized equipment, boats on the river, or animals—the VC having learned to hide among water buffaloes, cows, goats and pigs that they’d shepherd by crouching among them, making it appear that this was simply part
of the ebb and flow of village life, until it was too late, when they’d pop up and begin to attack an unsuspecting village, army post, or patrol.
A little past midnight, Hank and I were tapped to climb trees to be lookouts. In some ways, it was better than being on the ground, as we could straddle large branches and hook our legs around smaller ones, then lean against the trunk. The foliage was thick, so every few minutes we’d have to extend our arms to peer outside the canopy. There was nothing to see, but it felt as if we were contributing to the safety of the platoon. There was absolute quiet. It was peaceful. There was no rain. We were relaxed.
The sounds of gunshots were magnified by bullets ricocheting off of trees and the metal equipment that was lying on the ground. VC camouflaged with jungle vegetation were running below us, shooting AK-47s and Chinese assault rifles indiscriminately, springing up in front of GIs who in most cases never even had a chance to pick up their guns. It was all over in less than a minute.
The screams from their yelling coupled with the agonies of our men dying haunt me to this very day.
The VC made their exit quickly and within a few seconds, we couldn’t hear them. I shinnied down first, then Hank. We checked each body. Some had been wounded and then executed with a single shot to the head. No one was alive.
I threw up. I was shaking uncontrollably. So much sweat came out of every pore that it felt as if I’d been submerged in the river. I was nauseous. Bile came up into my mouth. As soon as I spit, an equal amount replaced it. I was woozy. Hank thought I’d suffered a gunshot wound and was checking me for blood or a gash in my clothing from a bullet. I couldn’t control my breathing. He ran to his gear to get a paper bag, and held it against my mouth, encouraging me to
breathe slowly. I had to take my helmet off in order to rub my hands over my scalp, which felt hot to the touch, reflecting the rhythmic beating of the drum that’d replaced my brain. I was concerned that I was in a medical state of shock, for which neither of us had the requisite equipment or skills to handle. Selfishly, I didn’t think of how all of this was impacting Hank. He assured me he was okay, but I didn’t know if he were masking some ailments such that I wouldn’t go any more off the deep end if I knew that he was seriously physically or emotionally injured.
His calm demeanor and leadership traits provided the treatments that saved my life. I’ve never gone a day without thinking of him under these most trying circumstances, and I expressed my admiration and thanks to him on numerous occasions.
After a half an hour, I began to feel a little better. His eyes and hands asked me if I were in a position to get up and leave. Hank mouthed not to use the radio in case the VC were lingering not too far away. I wondered if the villagers were VC, and had gotten the word to the guerillas in the jungle about how many we were and where we had bunked down for the night. Even if we were to go to the village at first light, the interpreter was also dead so there was no good that could have come of it.
We thought we’d start to make our way to a place far enough away from the village and the jungle, where we couldn’t be heard when we’d use the radio. But the very act of finding such a place would leave us exposed. It could be a suicide mission. We opted to stay in the jungle and to make our way around the village to get back to the river where the engineers had created the log bridge, just east of which was the spot where the Huey had left us off. It was a known landing area that could be described accurately. But how to get there?
We headed south, assuming that at some point past the fields, the jungle would connect to the river. We could hear some rustling that scared us enough to stop in our tracks. Frozen, we couldn’t see anything. After a few tense moments, we realized it was the sounds of birds and lizards, or perhaps rats, following our smell. When the brush was thick, we crawled on all fours, preferring not to use the machetes that we’d picked up from the fallen soldiers, as this would’ve made too much noise. We’d also grabbed two M-16s and multiple magazines that we stuffed into our medical bags. We moved ever so slowly, were careful with each step, doing our best to avoid even cracking a tiny branch, stifling coughs, never talking, only nodding and pointing. I thought that my heartbeat could be heard for miles and several times put my right hand over it, as if to give it a warning to shut up and not give us away. After a few hundred yards, Hank stopped, took off his shoulder bag and reached in to get the special boots that had soles that made impressions like Vietnamese sandals that were aligned back to front. I couldn’t believe that I’d forgotten about them and did the same. Neither of us were convinced that the track would fool an experienced scout, but it gave us an emotional lift at a time when we could really needed it.
Far enough inside the jungle, but close enough to see out, we skirted the rice paddies that now seemed to spread out endlessly as the night wore on. The ground turned into a bog that made walking difficult, especially since we were now weighed down with a gun, ammo, and a machete in addition to the gear we’d brought with us originally. We needed to rest and saw the perfect opportunity: the remains of a rubber tree plantation that started at the top of a seven or eight-foot rise would give us cover. I could see that the sticky sap was ever present on the bark and surmised that it had accumulated in pools on the ground. It was doubtful that any Vietnamese would want to bivouac in such a rotted place. The trees had been planted in neat rows, yet they were now almost totally overtaken by the fast-growing plants of the jungle.
Hank’s first reaction was that this plantation was a victim of the war, but I thought otherwise, whispering that it probably fell into disuse long ago when the giant chemical companies invented synthetic rubber, being cut off from natural supplies by the exigencies of World War II, something I’d heard from the radicals at school, when they’d go on one of their rants about the ravages of U.S. economic imperialism.
Leaning back against the incline, we kept our helmets on and never took our hands off our guns, just in case. After a few minutes, I leaned close to Hank’s ear and in a barely audible voice asked, “What? What did you say?” At that instant, we both realized that there were people on the other side of the embankment and we knew what that meant. Hank raised his M-16 and motioned to the side, meaning that he thought we should go around the berm, but I shook my head, concerned that we’d be spotted and would lose the advantage of surprise. He raised his head in the direction of the top of the berm giving me a shake. I agreed with that. They’d hear us if we were to crawl up. An alternative was to sit tight and do nothing. I quickly dismissed that option, as we could be sitting ducks if the VC had an inkling we were here.
My mind was racing, and for reasons I can’t readily explain, it settled on one of the Vietnamese words that the woman who sold us the shoes said, always with a laugh. It spawned an idea. I motioned to Hank that he should stand, cup his arms together tightly to make a footrest for me. When he did, I placed one foot in his hands, then the other, grabbed hold of his neck and as he raised his hands, hoisted myself first onto his massive shoulders, then placed my hands on his helmet, and started to stand straight up with my boots against either side of his head. Hank bent each elbow up and steadied my legs with his powerful hands. His feet were planted as firmly in the ground as the rubber trees¾there was no wavering, no trembling, no huffing and puffing. Slowly, I straightened up and when I was at full height my eyes were 11 feet off the ground, high enough to see a group of VC on the other side of the berm, lazily resting, their guns on the ground. I aimed my M-16 and pulled the trigger, screaming giết chết, giết chết’ at the top of my lungs, over and over, the 20 rounds hitting their targets. As soon as the magazine was empty, I dropped the gun and fired my Colt .45 eight times, aiming calmly until there was no movement. The only sounds we heard were the squawks of birds taking flight. There was no moaning. Hank grabbed my arm as I bent down and he lowered me to the ground. We had no hesitation now to run up the berm, Hank’s M-16 ready to fire. But there was no need. All seven were dead. We checked each one for signs of life and refrained from putting bullets into their heads. Then we both puked. The air reeked of gunshot, rubber, vomit, and our stink.
After an arduous trudge through the rubber plantation, we came upon a totally unexpected sight near its southern edge: a U.S. Marine patrol coming from a chopper to whom Hank called out frantically, waving his arms, “Dodgers in seven over the Twins, Koufax MVP,” an assurance to the leathernecks in the first faint light of dawn that the guys running towards them from the strand of rubber trees were friendlies and not VC.
That I could pivot from misery to a smile simply because Hank had chosen to call out the name of a famous athlete stuck with me in later years as a means to think about ways to begin to overcome despair.
When we reached the Marines, Hank asked me what I’d shouted out as I started firing. I told him it was Vietnamese for kill, pronounced zit-jyet. He repeated it over and over.
“How did you come up with that and the idea of standing on my shoulders? If any of them had looked up and seen a gigantic person with an M-16 hollering his lungs out, he would’ve been scared to death, no need for you to fire it,” he said with a huge grin.
“The Holyman,” I replied.
“What? Who? A holyman? I don’t understand. A Mexican thing?” “It’s hard to explain.”
1967, Albuquerque, New Mexico
As it turned out, Hank suffered a traumatic injury shortly after he left our unit; by chance, his hospitalization landed him at the VA in Albuquerque, so I was able to visit him after I returned home in 1967. His PTSD was exacerbated by the lingering effects of a drug overdose, both of which the doctors attributed to him witnessing a massacre that came about after a crew of our tunnel rats suffered gruesome deaths near Duc Pho, south of Da Nang on the coast. He wouldn’t go into any details, not because he couldn’t remember. Rather, it was the opposite:
these events were seared into his memory, playing in an endless loop with a voiceover that screamed damnation for him, a burden so severe that he longed for death as a sacrifice worthy of redemption. My visits provided little comfort and became less frequent. After a while, I realized that he didn’t know who I was. It was heartbreaking. Miriam thought it best if I recreated conversations with Hank that provided me with reminiscences of his bravery, comradeship and support.
That’s precisely what I talked about at his funeral.